Michael Calvin: Games more than a holiday romance
The Calvin Report: As a spectacular summer for Great Britain's Olympic and Paralympic teams draws to a close, the pressure is on to maintain the spirit of the occasion for Rio and beyond
Sunday 09 September 2012
Coldplay, a band as smooth, suburban and as successful as Sebastian Coe, will signal the end of the summer of love tonight. When the Paralympic flame is extinguished and the final anthem of their encore fades, the world will seem a more mundane, monochromatic place. Builders will move into the Olympic Park with indecent haste, constructing a carapace of fencing which will remove it from public view. A £200 million conversion programme will reclaim fields of dreams as hard-hat zones. It was unsurprising, then, that there was a suppressed sense of sadness as families flocked to the venues on the last full day of Paralympic competition. It was appropriate that the sun shone in an azure sky, because it felt like the final hours of a favourite holiday.
Stratford has been sport's Disneyland over the past seven weeks. The Olympics and Paralympics, previously distanced by tradition and inclination, merged seamlessly. The Games were a reaffirmation of national character, which revealed us to be more generous, and garrulous, than we dared to believe. To use one of Coe's telling phrases, "It is people that make the theatre."
Athletes have produced moments of greatness, scripted sequences of almost unimaginable human drama, but they do not perform in a vacuum. The soundtrack of the summer has been that of Middle England going bonkers, from the Aquatics Centre to the Olympic Stadium via the Velodrome, white-water course and rowing lake.
The Paralympics emerged from a difficult adolescence in London, despite the shameful ignorance of American TV schedulers, who reduced it to a rumour on their side of the Atlantic. There was something familiar, entirely appropriate, in the rancorous track race between Oscar Pistorius and Alan Fonteles Oliveira. It was sport for consenting adults.
Convention has been defied. Boundaries have become blurred. The thrilling theatricality of Usain Bolt's win in the Olympic 100m final was matched by Jonnie Peacock's melodramatic victory in its Paralympic equivalent.
David Weir and Mo Farah, wheelchair racer and long-distance runner, were revealed as kindred spirits. Each became a multiple champion because he possesses mental strength, tactical nous and a propensity to pour on the power at the pivotal moment.
Sarah Storey and Vicky Pendleton are indivisible in athletic terms, regardless of how society chooses to separate them. Ellie Simmonds and Jessica Ennis have a warmth which transcends their sport.
Heroes abound. But if those heroes are just for one day, to quote the lyrics of the David Bowie song that has been recycled, endlessly, in Games venues, a unique opportunity will have been wasted.
It will be an act of breathtaking political ignorance should the Government assume guarantees of funding for elite sport in the build-up to Rio 2016 are sufficient to fulfil their side of the bargain. Broader issues, of engaging youth and developing a culture of health and well-being at grass-roots level, are immeasurably more important.
The populist vision of opening Stratford's swimming and cycling facilities to the public is straight from the PR playbook. Initiatives such as yesterday's announcement of a festival of Paralympic sport in December are timely, if limited.
Despite the rhetoric, no previous Olympic or Paralympic host nation has managed to translate fleeting fervour into sustainable increases in participation. Women's football is a case in point. The GB Olympic team enticed more than 80,000 to Wembley, but the England team who play Croatia at Walsall on 19 September may struggle to attract a quorum.
If the nature of sports provision does not change, the pattern will continue. British sport is still trapped in a time warp. The club structure, a refuge for those with narrow, unreconstructed attitudes, does not have the capacity to cope with a surge in demand.
Governing bodies, and the quangos to which they answer, are generally unfit for purpose. It is rather apt that Jennie Price, CEO of Sport England, the grass-roots funding body, has a background in waste management.
Coaching, a profession without a clear career path, is in crisis. Courses are used to generate cash rather than promote a culture of self-education and cross-fertilisation of ideas. School sport has been betrayed by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, whose scrapping of the partnership system was as craven a misjudgement as the original decision to sell off school playing fields.
Elsewhere in the Westminster village, Jeremy Hunt's abject performance as Culture Secretary hardly inspires confidence in his ability to explore the obvious synergy between sport and his new responsibilities for health.
The stars of the show, the 70,000 so-called Games Makers, may yet revitalise the moribund notion of volunteerism, but there is no easy outlet for their enthusiasm, good humour, and common courtesy.Good people within the system are stifled by a lack of imagination. It was hardly an insoluble logistical problem to throw the Olympic Park open for at least another month. Sports could have used iconic facilities for taster sessions, overseen by medallists.
But they don't make leaps of faith in the la-la land of sports politics. They calculate the percentages, and maintain the pretence of pragmatism. That leads to short-term decisions, self-interest and such sagas as the Olympic Stadium.
It has been a magical place this summer, a joyous setting for overachievement. It seems inconceivable that £95m should be spent to convert it to a football-friendly stadium for West Ham United.
Idealism is, once again, about to be overwhelmed by opportunism. It is not what the athletes deserve, or the spectators want. But it is what they will get.
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